What If We Took Romans 14:13-21 Seriously?

In Romans 14:13-21, Paul establishes a love principle that has nothing to do with romance. The specific issue that serves as the context for the development of this love principle is a controversy over eating meat purchased in the local marketplace that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Most believers had no problem eating this meat, but others, who can come from a life of paganism, really struggled.

As there is not much meat sacrificed to idols in our markets, we do not have to face that specific issue. But we are faced with a very similar application, which is the consumption of alcohol. For many believers, the enjoyment of alcohol in moderation is not a problem. It is a non-issue. But there are many who struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction. Others are in recovery, and the presence of alcohol to them is a major temptation, luring them back into the slavery and misery of addiction.

Thus, Paul’s love principle, or love policy toward those who struggle with meat sacrificed to idols, is what we as a church as seeking to implement with regard to alcohol at officially organized and sponsored church events.

Romans 14:13-21 speaks directly to this contemporary application of the love policy. It will help the application stand out if you substitute drink for eatI’ve italicized in red the parts that deal most specifically with the policy we are seeking to create.

What if we took this passage seriously?

Romans 14:13-21

[13] Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. [14] I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. [15] For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. [16] So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. [17] For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. [18] Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. [19] So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. [20] Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. [21] It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

Here are some summary points:

  1. We should make a conscious decision to remove stumbling blocks (v. 13). This is why we are seeking to establish a policy of love toward those who struggle with alcohol. We are being proactive, deciding to love.
  2. To grieve someone by exercising my freedom is not “walking in love” (v. 15a)
  3. To flaunt my freedom is way that I can “destroy” a fellow believer (v. 15b). If I lead a recovering alcoholic back into alcoholism, I am destroying him.
  4. Alcohol must not be allowed to be necessity for Christian fellowship (v. 17). If I cannot abstain for a brother or sister, I am the alcoholic.
  5. I should desire what will contribute to the upbuilding of faith in my brothers and sisters (v. 19)
  6. It is sin for me to cause a struggling brother or sister to stumble at the point of his or her struggle (v. 20).
  7. I should be prepared to give up any personal freedom for the sake of loving my brother or sister (v. 21).

When we consider that the love principle described in verses 13-21 is dealing with the sacrificial love required to accommodate someone else’s struggle, we are able to see how providing a safe place for folks who struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction is the height of loving in the way we have been loved by Jesus.

Love always sacrifices in order to bless. Concerning this specific issue of alcohol, we are deciding to sacrifice freedom.

But Paul was a huge proponent of protecting a believer’s freedom?

Absolutely, specifically when that freedom was being challenged by legalism. Legalism would say that believers are forbidden to consume alcohol as principle. However, we do not subscribe to that extra-biblical binding of conscience, but affirm that the clear teaching of Scripture forbids drunkenness, not the enjoyment of alcoholic beverages in moderation.

The policy we are seeking to establish has nothing to do with personal liberties with alcohol. We are not asking believers to stop consuming alcohol or telling those who struggle that we are prohibitionist church.  We are not being hypocrites. In fact, just the opposite. We are being honest and open about our position on alcohol and that most Creekstone members consume alcohol. The point is that we have decided, out of love, to provide a context in our official church events where we are willing to sacrifice freedom in order to provide a safe place of fellowship, apart from temptation, for those who struggle with alcohol related issues.

What Romans 14 shows us is that, as a church that celebrates freedom, we recognize that there is an even greater principle at play than personal liberty, which is the law (principle or policy) of love. Paul makes this abundantly clear for us in Galatians 5:13-14, saying,

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

What Paul teaches us in Galatians (which has been called “the Magna Carta of Christian Freedom!”) as well as in the second half of Romans 14 is that the willingness to sacrifice a freedom for the conscience or struggle of another is not legalism. It is an expression of  love–the kind of voluntary sacrifice of freedom that conveys to those for whom we sacrifice that we value them more than we cherish our meat or drink. We value them enough to love them well.

This is the foundation of the alcohol policy that we are seeking to develop as a church with application for official church events so that people who struggle can know they can enjoy the fellowship of believers without unnecessary temptation.

Again, this is not legalism; it is love.

Thinking through this issue has been challenging as the lead pastor for a church that has many people who are coming alive to the glorious freedom of the gospel and really enjoy alcoholic beverages. Trying to articulate the why behind a church policy that restricts the presence of alcohol at officially sponsored church ministry events has caused me to think deeply about the issue–more deeply than I ever have before.

Understandably to some, it sounds as if the radical grace message that characterizes our teaching and congregational DNA is being compromised, if not threatened. However, upon much reflection, I am convinced that we are not going backwards. Our gospel centrality is not being compromised or threatened at all. In fact, with this policy, I think we are moving light-years forward in the gospel.

Why? Because when grace turns into functional, practical love, I am no longer merely a gospel reservoir, I have become a gospel conduit who is glorifying God in huge ways by manifesting the very mark Jesus said would define a true believer, which is practical love (John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”). Indeed, the implication of our alcohol policy provides the channel through which love can flow to us and through us.

This is how the gospel moves forward, not only as I consider how grace sets me free personally, but also how grace empowers me to love others sacrificially in the same way Jesus demonstrated his love to me on a cross.



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